Sunday Spotlight: Gotcha
There are at least two powerful lessons packed into today's brief gospel passage.
First lesson: You're in way over your head, if you think you can trifle with Jesus. The atmosphere in the temple had turned from hostile to murderous. Herod's henchmen didn't dream up their gotcha question just to embarrass Jesus. They're literally out to destroy him. If Jesus says don't pay the tribute, they'll betray him to the Romans as a rebel. If he says pay, they'll denounce him to the people as a collaborator. Then in a dozen words, Jesus tears their clever subterfuge to shreds. And their sweetly phrased deceit is exposed for all to see.
There's probably more than a little Pharisee or Herodian in many of us. Do we trifle with Jesus? Do we split hairs on our promises to him? Do we bait and switch on our commitments… praising God and then kicking him way down our queue of priorities? If so, we're in good company. St. Augustine prayed for virtue...but not now. He was having too much fun. Sounds incredibly arrogant, but don't we all play the same silly game from time to time. And while we may fool ourselves, the God who made every atom of our being isn't buying it. He knows when we're hedging our commitments, trying to rationalize our neglect, justifying our self-absorption.
Let's get honest with ourselves and with Jesus. Are we living in him and for him? Or is Christ just a bit player in the self-centered fantasy we call our life? It's time to get real, to edit the script, to put Jesus back in the center of the action. It's guaranteed to make for a much happier ending.
The second lesson is a familiar one: We are in the world, but not of the world. The state has its own institutions, laws and currency and so do we. Our basic institution is the Body of Christ. Our fundamental law is love of God and love of neighbor. Our currency is faith, hope and charity.
Tiberius Caesar could stamp his image on the coins of his realm. But it is the image of a monster that has endured… a pedophile… a serial killer… a tyrant. His reign of terror was succeeded by Caligula, whose name became even more synonymous with debauchery. The Caesars could have their names minted in gold coins and carved on granite monuments. They could proclaim themselves “gods” and have temples and feasts dedicated to their transient glory. But there legacy is dust. They are an object lesson in the corruption of power.
Over and over Jesus has told us that his kingdom is not of this world. He was born in a stable and died on a cross. He was mocked with a crown of thorns and a sign that lampooned him in agony as: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And yet two-thousand years later, Jesus Christ is Lord. He was, is and always will be God. He doesn’t need a coin or a statue or a cathedral to make him God. He doesn’t want and he doesn’t need an edict commanding the conscience of his people. He doesn’t need an Inquisition to enforce his will. Or in the case of our own New England experience, the noose, the stocks and the dunking stool making a mockery of his love.
Great mischief has been made over the centuries because we have had to learn this lesson over and over again. The faith that claims the power of Caesar to work its own will in the world is corrupted. The state that claims proprietorship of God's favor is a fraud. Hate in his name is a sacrilegious absurdity. God is not a terrorist.
Jesus uses the language of kings and kingdoms because that is the vocabulary of human relationships that we understand. But the Kingdom of God transcends all human concepts of territory and boundaries. It resides in the hearts of all believers, who accept God as the ruler of our lives, who seek in all things to be in conformity with his will. Love, not coercion, is God’s currency. Truth, not subterfuge, is his language. Jesus calls us to live the Kingdom, to serve the Kingdom, to build the Kingdom. He is our answer to the world's snares and gotchas. In him we are saved.